Social Justice: Theories, Issues, and Movements

By Loretta Capeheart; Dragan Milovanovic | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11

Justice and Grassroots Struggles

THE DIALECTICS OF LEGAL REPRESSION, a classic study by Isaac Balbus (1977), shows how grassroots struggles are channeled into legal categories, discourses, and procedures, often demobilizing those in struggle, or “cooling out the mark.” Issues are often framed narrowly, dividing struggles and redefining their intent (see Cole and Foster 2001; Delgado and Stefancic 1994; Milovanovic 1988; Unger 1996).1 The goals of dissidents are often depoliticized. Activist lawyers, too, often inadvertently reinforce the ideology of law at the cost of the goals of those in opposition. These practices and outcomes have been defined in terms of the dialectics of struggle.

Along with external dialectics of struggle are internal ones. Mary Bernstein (2002, 85) argues that “by advocating for rights based on an identity such as 'woman' or 'gay,' identity movements reinforce the identity on which the movements are based and, as a result, fail to recognize diversity, homogenize and ignore differences within the identity category, and inhibit the creation of a 'politics of commonality.'” In other words, terms such as “race,” “class,” and “gender” are ultimately categories without any real meaning. They are appropriated in struggle as rallying points for identity politics, but, ironically, they may often become hindrances for fuller appreciation of differences (see Klatch 2002; Robnett 2002).

Grassroots struggles are necessarily group processes and focus on group level justice. While these struggles can be and have been supported by legal struggles and/or support legal struggles, they are important and progressive in their own rights and often allow for a broader understanding of justice by those engaged in and witness to these struggles. This chapter, therefore, is more concerned with group struggles and only secondarily with individual struggles. When group struggles are created in the interest of social justice they have an impact far beyond the individual named in the case and are most often supported by others in the interest of social justice. This is not to say that individual concerns are not important; rather, our focus is more on how social movements take form and what role they play in social change and the development of social justice. Some suggest that it is not in the legal arena that social justice ultimately takes place but by collective action and/or the threat of such action.

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